Thursday, December 22, 2011

Trying to be impartial despite haters

Yes, Ladra is back. I'm preparing a few posts on things going on in Hialeah, Miami Lakes, the county, Homestead and elsewhere. (More on that later).

Ladra has been absent for a while because, let's say I've been distracted. In addition to having to work on my actual paying job in social media and media consulting, a group of friends and I embarked on a new project, a new avenue to provide information for the people of Hialeah, who sorely need it. 

I realized that the blog wasn't getting to everyone. Certainly not to the over 55 residents who vote and read mostly in Spanish, and hardly online. So this newspaper -- which will cover the city council and politics, sure, but also community events, school news, the business community and more -- was born.

And it's been a hard labor. Not just because we are learning as we go along -- and the second issue will look a lot better than the first. But because while Ladra's critics are constantly challenging her to be impartial, they won't let me when I try.

Here is the English version of the first column published in the inaugural Dec. 16 edition.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But I didn’t think it would be this hard.

When a group of friends and I decided that we would publish a newspaper in Spanish to counter the misinformation fed to the residents of Hialeah, we realized there would be some resistance. Mostly from those who do not want information to flow freely.

But we did not realize it would manifest itself in censorship and lack of transparency that is a staple of dictatorial regimes from which our families fled.

It is perfectly natural for politicians, elected officials and high-paid government types to be wary of journalists and bloggers who expose them as they buy votes with pancakes and collect absentee ballots from viejitos who don’t know who is running for what. And while this is my first column as editor of La Voz de Hialeah, I have grown into this position through my blog, Political Cortadito, in which I have written about those things already. I admit I have been critical of the city administration and elected officials – in my sarcastic, Cuban-American smart ass style. While well-received by many residents and city employees, the blog has become a thorn in the side for the powers that be.

I understand the discomfort. But I have every right to question their methods, intentions and actions. Perhaps even an obligation. After all, my parents left Cuba to make sure I grew up and lived in a country where freedom of expression and freedom of the press was not only guaranteed, but taken for granted. And if I see something wrong, it is my duty to them and to us all to point it out. Sometimes, that can be seen as impartial. And sometimes it is. The criticism cuts both ways and when Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez and the Seguro Que Yes city council call me biased, they are sometimes right. I am proudly biased because my slant is derived through the study of public documents, knowledge of historical reference and luck for inside information. And bias has its place. Like in these two [editorial/opinion] pages of La Voz de Hialeah. All bias is welcome here. Not just the bias from one side. And so I invite the mayor and city officials to write letters or guest columns for these pages.

But impartial information also has a place. Like on the other 14 pages. Like in the story about the opening of LA Fitness. Most people would see that as a positive story for Hialeah. But what is not in the article is that I was asked to leave the event by someone with the facility, most likely at the behest of the mayor or one of his lap dogs. On another day, the spokesman for the police department refused to send me a press release that had gone out to other media about the arrest of some juveniles after a smash and grab at Palm Springs Mile.

While criticism is important and, even, necessary to guarantee democracy, unbiased news and information can be more vital to a community. Especially one that is lacking it. La Voz de Hialeah was created in the void of such a beacon. And its aim is to cover the city in all its glory and beauty and cultural richness, not just its dirty little secrets. There is room for both and we hope that we will be allowed to public events so that we can take the images and information to the homes of the people.

Perhaps it will only take a little time, and a few editions of La Voz de Hialeah, for the mayor and other discomforted city officials to realize that we are here to cover both sides of the coin.

And that we are here to stay.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Political payback: rewards & revenge

Some have been promoted. Others have been punished. But make no mistake about the changes going on at Hialeah City Hall and in the city police department: The political payback and retaliation has begun with employees who were involved in the city's mayoral and council elections last month.
Those who supported and helped su alcaldito Carlos Hernandez are getting rewarded. Those who supported and helped former mayor Raul Martinez, who lost in a runoff Nov. 15, are the butt of the retribution. In Spanish, this is called un pasado de cuentas. In English, it's a settling of accounts.

Among those who have been spanked are three veteran police officers who have dedicated their lives to this community:

Commander Urbano Dieppa was busted down to sergeant after Hernandez saw he gave $100 to both his campaign and the Martinez campaign. He had been solicited for a contribution by Hernandez but expressed fear of retaliation if Martinez won. So another officer suggested he make the same donation to both candidates. That drew su alcaldito's ire. Rather than take the obvious political demotion in stride, Dieppa chose to take early retirement after Hernandez allegedly told him "You are either with me or you are against me.

Detective Sgt. Barbara Ricano, who is months from retirement and was a regular staple at the Martinez campaign office, was transferred to patrol as soon as the elections were over. Ricano, photographed here as she worked the first round of early voting at JFK Library, has not been on the road for more than a decade and has never been a patrol sergeant, which could be a safety issue to her and to other officers on that shift. And while the city may try to justify the move by saying that they are trying to crack down on patrol overtime, other officers beneath her rank have kept their desk jobs and juicy task force assignments.

Det. Ricky Garcia, whose organized fraud investigations have netted dozens, if not hundreds, of insurance scam artists and made headlines -- as well as secured a bunch of borrowed unmarked cars for the department from insurance companies only too happy with his work -- was transferred to patrol this week. There was no other reason to demote this 2009-2010 Investigator of the Year except that he was vocal about his support of Martinez. Here he is photographed with other Martinez supporters, some of whom may still feel su alcaldito's wrath.  Garcia, who is currently working several cases and had gone in on his day off to write some arrest reports because he loves his job, was not given a reason or even a head's up. He simply found the tranfer paperwork in his mailbox. His commanding officers didn't even know about the decision -- which shows it was made from the top.

It is obvious political retaliation against those who dared to be independent and exercise their constitutional rights. And there may be a class action lawsuit here.

But let's take a moment to juxtapose those against the rewards to others for their political choices.

Let's start with the case of Arnie Alonso, the completely unqualified lackey who drives su alcaldito around and does his bidding and served as his spokesman during the campaign (wonder if he was still getting his city paycheck to do that). Even though Alonso (photographed here during the first round of early voting, in white, standing next to his boss, and below on Nov. 1, standing next to his boss guarding him from Ladra) started his career at the city in parks department, where there were issues about some missing money from one of the sports leagues, he has now been promoted to chief of staff. Ladra wonders what kind of salary raise (read: payoff) came with that. I've asked. But who knows when we will learn. Acting City Clerk David Concepcion told me today that he would "submit the request to the appropriate department and provide you with the information once it becomes available." It should be as easy as a phone call.

And then there is Hialeah Police Commander Sergio Velasquez, known inside the city as Hernandez's chief enforcer and Godfather in the santeria religion, who was promoted to deputy chief despite holding the rank of sergeant. Forget about the fact that he is hardly qualified for that position, or that his history at the department has been full of questionable actions that have been investigated or covered up. Forget the fact that he made retaliatory investigations to further his career. Forget about the fact that he registered for college classes last week so he could qualify for the job. Those things don't matter because he is su alcaldito's friend and mentor. Police Chief Abuser Mark Overton, who Ladra heard has already one foot out the door to a position in Miami Beach (more on that later), told a reporter that the promotion was directly ordered by Hernandez.

Read that again: Directly ordered. Now why does the mayor of the city direct the police department's personnel moves? I understand he may have to approve them, but that would only happen if the changes came via the normal, administrative process for these types of transfers. But they don't. They come the other way. Which means they are political payback.

And the ones who will end up paying the ultimate price are the residents and business owners in the City of Retrogress.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Political con artist's AKA unveiled

You heard it here first. Actually, months ago. Ladra is not just a public watchdog. She's a political psychic.

Back in April, when a Miami Lakes dentist sued Constant Contact about an email he says defamed him to find out who the signed author "Sandra Lopez" really was, Ladra came right out and bet it would turn out to be Vanessa Brito, a political conartistultant who had campaigned for the recalls of former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Commissioner Natacha Seijas.

Dentist-turned-activist David Bennett knew it, too. It was Brito's trademark cowardly, anonymous style, her exaggeratedly derisive and contemptuous language. What we want to know now is who paid for it. Vanessa is perpetually broke and sucks the life out of everyone around her, like a locust, until they're spent dry or realize they're going to bleed to death. And Pizzi had more interest in bashing Bennett, a longtime vocal critic of the mayor's who formed an anti-Pizzi and pals PAC and had started to work on a recall effort. The bouncer-like mayor, who recently got hired as the town attorney in Medley (more on that later) and was involved behind the scenes in the election of Hialeah's alcaldito Carlos Hernandez and his slate, was counsel for Brito's Miami Voice PAC (read: Promotional Assistance Con) during a legal challenge of their dubious recall petition collection. And the two, photographed here during early voting for the recall campaign, became ratherbuddy-buddy during those weeks. Brito announced late last month that she was the campaign manager for his re-election campaign (guess Pizzi isn't worried about her recent track record). Also, the attorney that showed up in court to request that the Constant Contact client remain a Jane Doe was none other than David Reiner, who worked with Pizzi in the recall challenge. Now, in a second lawsuit on the matter (read on), a third recall lawyer, Ben Kuehne, has joined in to defend Brito and the rest named in the suit.

But, wait. Let's go to the beginning of this wonderfully entertaining tale, which began in April when attorney Stephen Cody filed a lawsuit on behalf of Bennett. It demanded that Constant Contact disclose the name of the account holder that sent what they referred to as a defamatory email blast from "Sandra Lopez." The email called Bennett a fraud because he had registered the name Miami Voice, Inc., in the state Division's of Corporate Records (you snooze you lose, Vanessa) and questioned his motives (well, maybe I question them too. But I also applaud them). Despite attempts by Reiner to keep the identity of "Jane Doe" -- apparently, one AKA is not enough for this con artist -- a judge ruled Nov. 7 that the company had to disclose the names associated with the account from which the email, Exhibit A, was sent. Said Cody: "This is not an abuse case or a witness protection case." Fort Lauderdale attorney Ari Glazer, representing Constant Contact, sent Cody an email Nov. 17 that said the company -- whose policy states that you need to use a real name in their emails -- identified the "Sandra Lopez" email as an account associated with Vanessa Brito, Heidy Medina and Myami Marketing, referring to Brito's life partner and corporate firm, respectively. He also disclosed two addresses associated with the account, Brito's parents home west of Sweetwater and her address with Medina in Northwest Miami-Dade near the Broward County line. "Constant Contact does not know which of these 2 individuals is responsible for composing or sending the e-mail," Glazer wrote.

It doesn't matter. They are one and the same. It was a Brito bomb. Gotcha!

Now, Cody filed a new defamation lawsuit against Brito, Medina and Myami Marketing based on the information disclosed and among the things he asks for in his stack of discovery documents is the list of how many people got the email and who they are, who paid for the digital missive and how, and all communication between the client and the company about the creation of the email. "They're going to say 'They're just after the list,'" Cody said, referring to the fact that Bennett has been in a long, heated battle to get the town's email list -- which he is entitled to, even if it is for his own political purposes. "But it's more to gauge the size of the damages," Cody said. "Let's say the thing went out to 10,000 people in Miami Lakes. Having to defend himself against such a large number of people who know him gives a potential for much greater damages than if she sends a random email to someone in Washington State who doesn't care."

Separately, Cody has asked the town of Miami Lakes for copies of the statements of all the credit cards used by the mayor and his office. But he may have to subpeona those, too, since he asked a month ago and he has still not gotten it. "And it should be a fairly simple matter going to the finance department, opening a file, making a copy and giving it to me." Ladra suspects they may be dragging their feet because the payment is there. As established, Brito is broke all the time and Pizzi, who likes to get freebies at town restaurants, did not yet have his big $200,000-a-year job in Medley. I can't see him taking this out of his own pocket if he can pay for it out of the city's general fund. Cody might want to get that in the discovery with Constant Contact instead.

Among the other things he asked for that Ladra will be eager to see is every email sent out from that same account since January, 2011. Who knows what other evil emails could lurk there? Maybe another email from some other false name, like "Blanca Rosa" who says she lives in the city of Miami and urges her neighbors to vote for Kate Callahan in her recently failed race for city of Miami commission. And if that email doesn't have a political advertisement disclaimer, then Brito may face a whole new slew of election law violation complaints and, maybe, lawsuits.

Ladra called Brito when she learned of the ruling, you know, to gloat, er, I mean get her side of the story. Miami Voice Chief of Security Ivette Lisa Taylor answered Brito's new phone, and I guess that it's new because had my name come out on the contacts list, nobody would have answered. I calmly explained the reason for the call and if she could get a message to Brito -- or Medina for that matter, since she was named in the lawsuit individually as well -- and Taylor was cordial and fine. She suggested I call Michael Pizzi. "He's handling that." Oh, really? In hindsight, I suspect she could have been answering Brito's phone to keep at bay all the people las malas lenguas say Vanessa owes money to from Callahan race. Because in less than five minutes, Taylor called back.

"Vanessa told me to tell you that she wouldn't speak to you if you were the last blogger on Earth," she said, and I almost spit out my Starbuck's. "She says you better stop calling her and her family," referring to Medina, who is also named in the court documents as an account holder at Constant Contact and is treasurer of the Miami Voice PAC. I began to explain to Taylor -- who needs to be spoken to slowly lest she's had a few forbidden cocktails already -- that Brito is, indeed, a public figure and that if she tries to fool said public again for her political gain (or her friends' and allies'), I would have to ethically call her, again, to give her an opportunity to set the record straight or provide context. All she has to do is say no comment. But she hung up on me before I could add that she can say no comment with style, ala "not even if you were the last blogger on Earth." Funny stuff.

Coincidentally, she could now face the same kind of reluctant subject as a blogger herself. Last week, the Huffington Post announced that Brito would be a contributor to their new Miami edition. That was a surprise to most people who know her well, many of whom are taking bets on how many weeks the arrangement will last before she blows it completely after exhausting her many patent excuses.

I wonder if those people at Huffington did any kind of vetting -- or even a simple google search -- of their Miami staff line-up, which also includes Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, City of Miami Beach Commissioner Jerry Libbin, Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade, University of Florida wildlife ecologist Dr. Frank J. Mazzotti, PR guru and queen of the night Tara Solomon; NBC Miami Nitecap host Peter Bailey, "smart growth" blogger Tony Garcia and Miami Museum of Contemporary Art Director Bonnie Clearwater. Because one of Brito's first pieces is an analysis of the politically-connected gaming industry's interest in our community. Hmmm...

I wonder if she's doing any professional political work with or for the multiple lobbyists and consultants involved (more on that later), which would also raise the question of whether or not the blog entries should come with a paid political advertisement disclaimer.

Maybe Brito should have written her blog or column under the name Sandra Lopez.